Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The SIS turns Parliament into liars again

When Parliament passed the Intelligence and security Act in 2017, they assured us all that it was full of safeguards. Any intrusive surveillance of New Zealanders would be subject to a "triple lock", requiring the approval of the Minister and (supposedly independent) Commissioner of Intelligence Warrants, as well as post-facto review by the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence. But according to the latest report from the Inspector-General, the SIS has turned them all into liars.

The problem is that the SIS has switched from using individual warrants to "class-based" ones when collecting intelligence on potential terrorism and violent extremism. So rather than having to convince the Minister and Commissioner of the need to spy on a particular person, as they were required to do in the past, they have instead switched to convincing the Minister and the Commissioner that they need to spy on classes of people, broadly and apparently subjectively defined - meaning that the actual decisions about who gets spied on and how are left entirely to them. This is clearly envisioned by the Act, but at the same time also clearly evades all those safeguards we were told about. And in the specific case, the Inspector-General argues persuasively that it is a "general warrant" (one which does not specify exactly what can be done under it) - a thing which has been unlawful since forever. And interestingly, once you strip away the tortured language designed to hide the admission, it seems that Crown Law agreed:

The Service disagreed with me that the warrants were general warrants at common law, provided the class definitions were tightened, and this was a view supported by Crown Law.
[Emphasis added]

The SIS subsequently did that. But the "improved" warrant still lets them decide "what ideologies are considered terrorism or violent extremism, who is a valid target, and what intrusive activities would be carried out, up to the maximum level of intrusiveness that the law allows." It may no longer be illegal, but it is absolutely improper.

That question of propriety is the real and underlying issue here. The IGIS is clear that while class-based warrants may legally be available, using them for intrusive surveillance "undermines the spirit of the warranting regime" and betrays the promises made to us about safeguards:

The authorising framework in the ISA provides for a process to give the public confidence in the justification for the agencies’ actions, by requiring external authorisation for the use of highly intrusive powers. Prior authorisation is a safeguard against agency overreach. It helps to ensure that breaches of protected rights in the interests of national security are justified and according to law. In the development of the ISA, this was described as a “triple-lock” of protection for individuals, with the three locks being control from the Minister, the Commissioner of Intelligence Warrants, and post-facto review by the IGIS. The effective delegation to NZSIS, under these warrants, of decisions on who to target for counter-terrorism or violent extremism purposes, by what means and for how long, and to undertake the most intrusive activities available, effectively leaves the scrutiny of individual cases to my office alone, after the fact. That is not what the public was led to expect.
Bluntly, the ISA was meant to stop the spies from doing whatever the fuck they want. This is a deliberate circumvention of all those safeguards. It is absolutely unacceptable. Further, it betrays that the culture of lawlessness and unaccountability the ISA was meant to stamp out continues to exist, in the SIS at least. And if that's the case, you really have to ask why we tolerate their continued existence.

IGIS will now be putting the SIS's improperly-delegated targeting decisions under the microscope, giving them the scrutiny the Minister and Commissioner should have. But while that's better than nothing, its not enough. And you really have to ask whether the Minister and Commissioner of Intelligence Warrants were doing their jobs properly when they signed off on this. The then-Minister, Andrew Little, is gone, so there's nothing we can do about him other than make sure he's not let within a mile of the position in future. As for the Commissioner, this seems to be a strong case for removal for neglect of duty.